review by David Dalgleish
Director: Chen Kaige
Writer: Gao Lili
Cinematographer: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Sun Chun, Qiang Guan, Hua Kang, Lu Lei, Wu Ruofu, Huang Xueqi
"Only good men are fit to be soldiers."
3 out of ****
The Big Parade is a fine movie by a great director, tainted by an irony too bitter to stomach. It is a celebration of the Communist spirit, focusing not so much on the ideology--although it is ever-present--but rather on the appeal of solidarity. It shows us, convincingly, how people are ennobled when they go the extra distance for the sake of a common purpose. Unfortunately, the individuals are soldiers, and the celebration, the eponymous parade, takes place in Tiananmen Square--the site, of course, of one of the Chinese government's most infamous acts.
The film closes with rousing images--row after row of marching soldiers, strutting proudly across the Square, below a banner bearing the stern fatherly countenance of Chairman Mao--but these images recall other images, snapshots of the massacre: a white-shirted protestor standing his ground before an advancing column of tanks; a hysterical blood-spattered student confronting the impassive mien of a People's Liberation Army soldier. The Big Parade perhaps intends to bring to mind notions of "heavenly peace," but becomes, through the lens of history, an unwitting mockery of those notions.
That said, it is by no means an unworthy film, when taken out of context. It does not, however, compare with Chen Kaige's best work, and I imagine he now views it with misgivings, given the disillusionment with Communism manifest in his other work. The Big Parade chronicles the preparations of a squad of soldiers prior to the military display in Tiananmen, which marks the 35th anniversary of the People's Republic parade. The parade is televised, and although the men will be on TV for mere minutes, they devote the preceding weeks to intense training. During those mere minutes, a nation will be watching, and they want to show that nation that it can feel proud of itself.
On the basis of The Big Parade, the nation should feel proud: these are fine people. We follow a half-dozen men through the film, and each must face a personal crisis; a bow-legged soldier strives to overcome his deficiency, a young soldier's mother dies and he must return home. These incidents evolve smoothly, without contrivance; Chen has a penchant for melodrama, but here chooses understatement, nicely balancing the hyperbole of the officers' military mindset. The relationships among the men are explored thoughtfully, with admirable tough-mindedness, and as the training proceeds, some soldiers must be cut from the squadron. The grace with which those who are dismissed accept their failure is enviable. There are no villains here, only decent men, impelled by duty, pride, and brotherhood to push themselves to the limit, and step down if their limit is inadequate. Were it not for real life, we might almost be convinced that, as we are told, only good men are fit to be soldiers.
The account of the training period includes several engrossing set-pieces, the best of which, perhaps, is the depiction of an exercise which has the squad standing at attention on a stretch of hot tarmac under the blazing noonday sun, for two hours, with no shade. Medics watch intently as the soldiers sweat and strain, as legs buckle, and rush to tend those who collapse, overcome by the heat. Some, through teeth-grinding willpower, remain upright for the whole two hours. The entire gruelling, mesmerizing endeavour embodies some essential quality of human stubbornness, as men endure the codified barbarism that passes for "conditioning" in the army, for the sake of a parade which does not, except as a matter of principle, require anything like this level of mental and physical discipline.
Chen and cinematographer Zhang Yimou embrace military iconography with a zeal that is almost fetishistic. From uniforms and set jaws, precise ordered ranks, synchronized marching feet, they fabricate a vision of solidarity that is urgent, seductive, striking. Perhaps a convoluted argument could be made that they somehow subvert these sub-fascist displays, but when the sounds of the Shaanxi Philharmonic Orchestra swell up over the rows of marching figures in the closing scenes, it is difficult to find subversion, easy to find adulation.
It may also be tempting, because it's easier, to see the film as strictly an aesthetic artifact, to remove it from history, to ignore the ideological issues that sully the serene waters of its surface. But, like Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi documentaries, the historical context is what The Big Parade is all about: it idealizes a particular set of beliefs at a particular place and time, and those beliefs must be recognized for what they are. Indeed, many mainland Chinese films since The Big Parade (or, more to the point, since Tiananmen) are, in some sense, acts of recognition, of response. It is easier to understand, after seeing this film, why it is almost redundant to call a Chinese movie tragic, for here is a rarity, one that ends on a high note, on a moment of hope and unity--and it is nothing but propaganda.
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